by Sharon Marr
(Based on Luke 13:1-9)
This Gospel reading is certainly a reading for today isn’t it. We find just as we avidly follow the news today and try to make sense of it, the folk here are addressing the news of the day and are asking Jesus to make sense of their news: why did the Galileans suffer? why were the eighteen killed when the tower fell on them? they asked Today we would ask … why is the Covid pandemic gripping our world? why is there war in Europe, causing deaths and devastation? Why? Why? Why?
Many years ago, or perhaps just the other day, when I was a child of about seven and my brother was three, he went through a stage of … Why?
“Come inside, Marty, it’s time for your bath,” called Mum. “Why?”
“Because it’s nearly tea time.” “Why?”
“Because dinner’s ready to go on the table.” “Why?”
“Because that’s where we all eat.” “Why?”
By this time Marty was directed, smartly, by an exhausted mum, to the bathroom.
This stage of “why” was not fleeting … and doggedly went on for many months until one day in response to yet another “Why” from Marty, Mum turned around and said, “Just, ’cause.” And silence reigned. Marty, apparently satisfied with this, did as he was asked and “why” was put to bed, at least for a while.
Why do bad things happen to good people? seems to be the question asked of Jesus.
This is an age-old question, isn’t it. I suppose to ask “why” is to be human. We can’t help ourselves; we want to understand. We want to make sense of the world. We want our lives to be logical, reasonable, orderly, sane. Of course, not all the whys of the world are bad; some can lead to really positive outcomes – an example being Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. When Fleming returned from a vacation to find that a mould had developed on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate, he noticed that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci, and thus the “why” of this became life saving penicillin.
But … mostly the whys are because we try to protect ourselves with rationalizations and false assurances. We still crave a Theory of Everything when bad stuff happens. We still look for formulas to eradicate mystery, and make sense of the senseless.
When the unspeakable happens, what default settings do we find we revert to?
“Nothing happens outside of God’s plan.”
“God is growing your character through this tragedy.”
“Don’t worry, the Lord never gives anyone more than they can bear.”
“Nothing is ever lost.”
“Buck up — other people have it worse.”
The problem with every one of these answers is that they distance us from those who suffer. They keep us from embracing our common lot, our common brokenness, our common humanity, and also within these answers we tritely give, it is somehow implied that God was responsible in the first place!
The Good News is here in this reading from Luke: we find Jesus firmly opposes the widely held belief that God punishes sinners with suffering. In fact, as we read on he says that God is like a patient gardener who will give an unfruitful tree another year to produce. Not a mention of a chainsaw here!
God does not punish sin, Jesus says, but gives life. The difference between an image of God as a law-giver and God as a life-giver is huge. Jesus seems to strongly prefer the image of God as a life-giver. The law-giver demands obedience, and rewards or punishes our performance. It’s a relationship based on demand and fear. The life-giver certainly wants us to love one another (as described in God’s laws) but our love is a fruit of our being loved. It’s a relationship of gratitude and trust. God’s response to our disobedience is not punishment but more love, until we bear fruit.
Repentance is a matter of allowing God to love us out of our sinful ways.
When our daughter Lissy was very little she had, as most small people do, a great passion for my pretty bits of jewellery. She loved to put them on and pretend she was a princess or a queen or perhaps even just her mum. Lissy knew, however, she had to ask before she played with my trinkets.
One day I came home from work and found a favourite cross in pieces with a note attached. The note said, “I am so sorry about breaking your necklace Mum. I didn’t mean to I was just playing with it. It is the one with the golden cross. Please forgive me. WILL YOU?” (‘will you’ in capital letters) … and a picture of a face with tears coming from the eyes.
Now, who thinks at this time I should have sat Lissy down and reminded her about Number 5 of the Ten Commandments (Honour your father and mother) and follow that swiftly with the rod suggested in Proverbs 13? Or even ask why it had happened? Well, I didn’t, and I didn’t need to. Lissy at her tender age had realized she had transgressed, she had confessed and she had asked forgiveness, and I with my heart filled with love, gave cuddles and kisses to my darling daughter and the longed for forgiveness. I still have the note from my very loving daughter, laminated, a reminder of many things. It reminds me, firstly, that because Lissy put into words her wrong doing, I was able to forgive easily and with love, a life-giving moment for both of us. And, secondly, most importantly for me, that this is all God requires when we transgress. A contrite heart. God loves us unconditionally, with an extraordinary, absolutely, overwhelmingly unreasonable love that … never ends … it is the only thing that will last.
Why? Just, ’cause.
Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes this of today’s reading:
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Because things happen.
God is not an algorithm.
Did the eighteen people crushed by the wall
deserve their death? No.
Does the struggling tree deserve to be cut down? No.
Jesus dispenses with the idea —
the demonic lie — of deserving.
There is no such thing.
God is not bound to the past
and our performance in it;
God is in the present moment.
God is not a cashier,
dispensing what we’ve earned.
God is life, and the giving of life, and nothing else.
No compromise. No conditions.
There is no “deserving”.
It is the lie of Satan, luring you into the past,
into fear, into bondage. It does not give life.
God’s will is not what you deserve,
but what you need.
Regardless of the accidents that befall you,
regardless of evil you do or the evil you suffer,
God’s will is to offer what you need to live fruitfully,
which is always mercy.
A tree that is not fruitful needs nourishing.
A person who is not righteous needs healing.
A son who has distanced himself needs family.
People who crucify need forgiveness.
A Beloved who has died needs resurrecting.
Dare to abandon your calculations
and its illusion of control.
From Life there is only the giving of life.
Receive, and you will have fruits to give.
Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? I don’t know either – it is mystery. But I do know we can respond by sharing this God-given gift of life with the ‘what happens next’ for others … if we go and weep with someone who’s weeping. If we fight for the justice we long to see. If we confront evil where it needs confronting. If we learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. If we cultivate beautiful things. If we look our own sin in the eye and repent of it while we can. Time is running short. The season to bear fruit has come. Repent. Do it now.
With thanks for thoughts, clarifications and words from my fellow pilgrims on the journey, Debie Thomas of Journey with Jesus, Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, and the Working Preacher website.